Monday, January 25, 2010

We Sing

We sing because we are happy beyond words. We sing because there is no other voice to express our pain. We sing because only song affirms our existence in the void of silence. We sing because it brings us release; it brings us comfort; it brings us joy.

There is power in song. It arrives in human existence where words fail, bridging the gap between the spoken and the unspeakable, carrying something beyond self, something more akin to soul. Song breaks down the barriers of erudition and sophistication we build around ourselves and reminds us of our humanity, of the simple children we all carry within ourselves.

In Touch Magic, Jane Yolen writes of the "big words" so often found in myth and fairytale, words like "sad," "true," "love," and "hero." She says that as adults we fear those words; we avoid using them to talk about our feelings and our world because they are too powerful, too pure. We pride ourselves on understanding more of the nuances and complexity of the "real" world than those words encompass; we relegate them to the realms of childhood and fantasy because those words are too big for our world. They have too much power, too much faith behind them. Those are the words that emerge in song, if not in semantic form, then in the power of sound. Love. Heroism. Sadness. Words that hold the power of childhood wonder, hope, and broken innocence; words that tap into the power of the human soul.

Those are the voices that came from Haiti last week, wafted over the radio waves as the women, eking out some form of existence in the wake of the earthquake, began to sing; one voice joined to another, drawing a crowd into a chorus that the commentator described as an "impromptu revival." That was the voice that sawed through the crackle of static as one elderly woman, described as "almost hidden in the leaves of a bush," sang to herself to try to calm her own fears. That song transcended language; the words were in Haitian, but the song came through – the stab against the insurmountable, crushing weight of disaster and the affirmation of self in sound against the backdrop of silence and non-being. Those voices, those songs, said far more than any commentary or translated speech. They touched the big things. They touched magic – the magic of humanity within us.

Song expresses more than words. Like poetry, it limits the words we use, conscripting elocution into the service of rhythm and song. It reinterprets the meaning with melody and with the rendering of circumstance and singer. It pushes us out of our clipped pragmatic journalism, our text messaging abbreviation, and our elegant elocution. It pushes us into a realm of almost childish emotive power that reaches beyond a moment and into a greater stream of life. This is why the national archives retains recordings of folk song from days long past. Those voices of another time and place are not just an archival curiosity; they tell us as much about the people who made them as any photograph or narrative. And those voices, flattened by archaic recording equipment, call to a primal part of us, telling us about ourselves.

Perhaps that is why spirituals have always been one of my favorite forms of Christian music. They are simple and direct. They use those forbidden "big" words without hesitation or apology. They term things which have elicited volumes of elaborate, erudite commentary in lyrics so elemental a child could understand. They speak of human longing and human triumph in voices innocent, injured, and sincere in ways that the complexity of modern culture might find "folk" or "quaint." I find them powerful. In the Bible, Jesus spoke to children without hesitation, identifying them as the echo of the building blocks of heaven. Those children, like children throughout the centuries, spoke in the big words. They expressed innocence and directness not tempered by pride in complexity. They represented joy, sorrow, the essence of what humanity is, before it is reworked and hidden behind the facades of necessity and the scar tissue of experience. The spirituals return me to that childlike relationship, that awe of something greater than myself, and that enthusiasm to be noticed and affirmed.

Those songs, the simple, genuine ones, come from the soul. Long after the details of the quake in Haiti fade from my mind, when I forget the magnitude or the number of aftershocks, those songs will remain, linking me to their singers in primal human experience. And long after the memory of rhetoric and erudition fade, the simple faith and suffering of spirituals will still bring a tear to my eye. Because we sing when we cannot speak. Because song expresses something from the soul, not merely from the self. Because we sing to affirm that we are.

NPR Story

Touch Magic/

National Folklore Collection

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